No easy road, Part 4: Stormy weather
In South Philadelphia it seems there is no easy road to graduation.
by Benjamin Herold
Last fall, the Notebook began profiling students at three South Philly high schools to see what keeps them connected to school.
We met Corey White, an earnest 9th grader who left his house at 5:45 each morning to get before-school tutoring at the selective Academy at Palumbo.
We met Will Green, whose quiet ambition to become a veterinarian seemed to be withering from lack of notice at massive South Philadelphia High School.
And we met Dominique Holloman, a vibrant 15-year-old looking for a fresh start at newly reopened Audenried High after an entire year out of school.
A year later, all three students are on the ropes.
Just after 11 p.m. on October 21, the Phillies won a return trip to the World Series. Will Green and his friends sought to join the citywide celebration.
Before they made it to Broad Street, however, they were stopped by police.
“The cops said they heard gunshots, so they started smelling our hands. Then they found some of those big cigarettes and said I was putting drugs in them and took me home for being out past curfew,” Will recounts.
His mother was terrified.
“I don’t want him getting into that life,” says Freena Green. “Look at his father, where he is now [incarcerated on drug charges].”
Will thinks his mother is overreacting. He swears that he doesn’t use or sell drugs, and he wishes his mother would stop discussing his troubles with her friends from church.
Less than a week later, however, Will got suspended from South Philadelphia High for fighting.
Will admits he and a friend got in a fight with a classmate who also lives in their neighborhood. But given that the incident occurred after school hours, several blocks away, he and his mother were surprised that it led not only to a ten-day suspension, but a recommendation by South Philadelphia High that he be transferred to an alternative school via what is known as an EH-21.
“Group assaults” are automatically classified as Level 2 offenses. As a result, what Will describes as a minor neighborhood misunderstanding may result in him having to pursue his diploma at a disciplinary school.
Such reliance on punitive approaches like suspensions and expulsions creates an alienating climate that disproportionately harms young African-American and Latino men, say three creators of a University of Pennsylvania class called “Psycho-educational Interactions with Black Males.”
Rather than preparing these young men to handle the challenges they confront daily, says Professor Howard Stevenson, too many schools foster “a sense of incompetence and vulnerability” in young men of color.
Structured opportunities to develop a healthy racial identity, adds Eric Grimes, help young men of color learn to safely navigate an often-hostile world.
But unfortunately, he contends, schools like South Philadelphia offer students like Will little more than “access to girls and the opportunity to fight other boys who are going through the same things.”
The results are disastrous, says Robert Carter.
Reviewing the Notebook’s reports on Will, Carter mourns the deterioration of his “desire to touch something and have it grow” into a willingness to merely “play the game of school.”
The real tragedy, say all three men, is that even if Will manages to graduate, he will be equipped to succeed only in environments that are as dysfunctional as the school itself.
Corey White, 16, steels himself for another day of high school at Academy at Palumbo.
At the highly competitive Academy at Palumbo, meanwhile, Corey White is struggling to find his way.
Last year, close relationships with teachers helped Corey start strong. But by the end of 9th grade, his grades had slipped.
Shortly into 10th grade, Corey received interim reports in English 2, Geometry, Chemistry, and Health/Physical Education.
Learning he was in danger of failing four classes rocked the usually confident 16-year-old.
“I was thinking about leaving Palumbo,” he says quietly.
Much of Corey’s problem began when he missed a week of class, homework, and notes with an ear infection. “I couldn’t understand the [new] work because I had to catch up on understanding the work I missed,” he explains.
Complicating his situation were factors common to low-income students of color who must adjust to competitive school climates, says Kristine Lewis, assistant professor of multicultural and urban education at Drexel University.
Students like Corey, she says, have not been groomed for that kind of environment and must “learn to decode” how it works.
In 9th grade, Corey was able to connect to help. He came to school early for math tutoring, and his English teacher automatically understood how he learned.
“But this year,” he laments, “it’s not the same. [Teachers] explain the work, give the work, then expect to get it back. They don’t show you everything.
“I need more examples. I need somebody to go over [the work] in more detail so I can mimic them.”